Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Messiah

Although there were some important things that he was working on —and which were released— in the interim, David Axelrod's follow-up to Earth Rot was released a little over a year later and with a few important changes. Chief among these being that this was his first album not on Capitol, and the first to start off his label-jumping 1970's decade.

And this is a weird album, especially considering the context.

If you are to count the Pride album as a David Axelrod solo record in all but name (which I personally do, but I'll get to it later; as it's technically not), then you have to consider that Axe was coming off the most progressive and personal work he would ever do. And then, when you go the next step and consider that he did one of his heaviest (and least like his signature style) albums immediately after this 1971 album, this album just seems completely out of place.

In retrospect, the Messiah album almost seems a little stopgap.

There's a producer listed on the liner notes that isn't Axe (Ronald Budnik — exactly, who?!) and Cannonball conducts, perhaps suggesting that Axe's whole heart was not really in on this one. And, just looking at the surface —old compositions with new arrangements, production and conducting duties someone else' problem— it's easy to write this one off. And I did. For a long time.

Still not my favorite Axe album by a long shot, I've warmed up to David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of Handel's Messiah (it's full original title, later changed to just Messiah) quite a bit over the years. It was the first Axe album I heard, and so, based on that alone, it will always have a special place in my heart. It's just that the album feels less like a step forward (as all of his first three albums did), as it does more like a holding pattern.

Starting the album off with "Overture," one of the greatest and most epic Axe tunes ever, is not bad by any means. The tune is one of only two instrumentals on the album and it is easily the most reminiscent of anything previous. The first two and a half minutes are the closest Axe had yet come to traditional classical music. Lots of big, dynamic string and woodwind sections with varying time signatures, and no backbeat to speak of. A fantastic pre-cursor to the works he would attempt much later, it's just as confusing as it is intriguing. When the fuzzed-out electric guitar strums atop a grandiose string section two minutes in, you know something's up. A short theme and then silence. A gently plucked electric guitar chord and some vibes resonate, an electric guitar distorts its way into the mix and then an electric bass wails the impending theme in a high register. And then, wait, that perfectly dramatic drum fill? There's Earl! Crash and in comes the swamp beat and HO-LEE-SHIT, what an epic buildup that was! The rest of the tune rolls along with too many amazing moments to try and articulate here. Just know it's one of Axe's best.

And then some pretty piano chords. "Comfort Ye My People" is the first song to feature vocals on the album and they're really good, actually. Kind of done in that pop soul style that Axe was so fond of. They're mixed in kind of low, which is a shame because the male vocalist (unlisted) is really kind of guttin' it the whole way through, even cracking and breaking pitch in a few places. Fantastic stuff, actually. But so unlike the overture, it's not even funny. I mean, is this a Lou Rawls outtake? Great stuff, in any case.

And then we have another Lou Rawls song (actually "And the Glory of the Lord"), but sang by a female lead backed by a choir this time (again, unlisted). The arrangement here is just as nice as any of Axe's Capitol productions and there's even a bit of twang in the electric guitar, perhaps suggesting that this is actually Axe's blues rock interpretation of the Messiah.

Presumably, "Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive" has the same female lead as the last tune, because she's just as awesome. The arrangement here is slow and unfolding. So much so, that by the time the song is over, you'll want a lot more. The thing has changed for the better so much that you'll want a little repetition of that last little section. The song, perhaps more than anything else on the album, with its belting female lead and heavy reliance on fender rhodes accents, most heavily highlights the gospel slant of this rendition of the Messiah. The final thirty seconds or so —an infinitely lush layer of interlocking strings and horns— is absolute heaven for me. Complete and utter musical perfection. Besides the overture, this is my favorite song on the album.

Flip the record and you're greeted by... more classical music. Actually very nice and not the least bit funky, "Pastoral Symphony" is just as its titles implies. A faithful rendition, I hated it and skipped it every time I played the album for years until I finally became a man and started listening to classical music. I mean, does this sound like a David Axelrod song? No. But the rest of everything else on the album does, so this is easy to disregard. But give it a chance and it's a good mood setter for side two.

Starting off sounding like it's going to be an extension of "Pastoral Symphony," "And the Angel Said Unto Them" features a heavy swamp beat from Earl Palmer and some seriously good subtle guitar work. The female lead is less soulful and a little more operatic and traditional, but she's completely out of sync with the otherwise incidentally funky backing track. I mean, this backing track has to be a Song of Innocence outtake. It's that good. Tons of loping horns and a growing string section lay underneath a shifting, longingly beautiful backdrop, accented by lots of fuzzed out guitar and Hammond B-3 riffs. Too bad that opera lady won't shut up. Sorry, but she ruins it. Good song, could've been better though.

"Glory to God," honestly, is what I expected this album to sound like. A big choir arrangement and little intermittent instrumental sections. A little over the top and very vocally focused, it sounds like the sort of middle of the road AM pop rock that seemed inherent upon looking at the cover of the album.

Despite its kick ass Earth Rot-style quick as lightning flute solo, "Hallelujah" is more of the same. Big horns, big choir, a little Hammond B-3 to give it some stereotypical 'churchiness' and that's that. Not a real big fan of this one, but it serves its purpose I guess.

"Worthy is The Lamb" opens with —at least I've always assumed but can neither conform nor deny because of the lame liner notes— a solid Cannonball Adderley soprano cameo that is completely jubilant yet softly captivating and so appropriate for the last song on the album. Another all-choral vocal, it's at least quite varied in its arrangement, with a nice instrumental breakdown in the middle. A good note to end on as well, as it feels perfectly resounding in its final cadence.

As my first Axe album, it was acquired incredibly easily in comparison to the lengths I had to go to in the following years. I found it in the racks at my local used record spot (the only album I was able to find there; everything else was either reissues, eBay or out of town spots), so I just assumed for years that it was Axe's easiest to find album. I don't know how this one did initially. It popped up quite a bit ten years ago, but originals are seemingly less available these days. In any case, here's the original 1971 issue on RCA "Dynaflex" (a/k/a shyte) vinyl. You can't see it in the photos, but the cross on the cover is die cut and actually pops out. So cool:


The album was reissued on vinyl only in the early 2000's (I want to say 2002, but I don't know, as I didn't pick it up right away). The vinyl reissue does away with the original's gatefold cover, gets rid of the die cut cross and replaces the original slate card stock with a glossy one. The mastering is the same:


As the first proper Axe album that I was able to sit down and listen to from beginning to end, this was a real letdown for me. I knew the original EMI UK compilation (Anthology 1968-1970), so I knew some of the choice Capitol stuff, but this album was just a head scratcher for me. The overture was what I wanted. Stuff like "Hallelujah" and "Glory To God" was not. It was a seriously confusing album. Not in the good Earth Rot way either. In the bad, 'Is this really what I like?' way.

The liner notes told me next to nothing about the specifics.

Cannonball conducted, huh? So, basically, he got drunk, said, 'Yeah, Axe, that sounds good,' played a short solo at the beginning of a tune and then went and recorded Soul Zodiac? Who is Ronald Budnik? Who are "The Dillons" (credited as 'artist')?!?! What was the motivation behind Axe doing a record on RCA; how did that happen? Who is in the band?

Basically, this album was frustrating then, and after years of analyzing and constantly reassessing the music, it still is. Even more so, in fact. The liner notes are almost intentionally vague (I'm just assuming that's Earl Palmer on drums because if it's not, somebody's jockin' his style pretty heavy). Most of the backings sound like the arrangements that Axe did for Lou Rawls, so accordingly, this sounds more like an Axe production and less like an Axe album. Truly, the only things here that sound like David Axelrod songs are the overture and "Behold."

But, in the end, it does have that undeniable Axelrod sound throughout most of it. If it's not as soul-wrenching or resonating as anything that came before it, that, in retrospect, can be forgiven because of the highs that were achieved before it. Everybody needs to take a breather every now and then. And this was Axe's. Sure, it's a rehash of the religiously-themed Electric Prunes albums from a few years previous, but it's done in a way more soulful style. One that reflects the blues and gospel influence that modern religious music has, implying that before spiritual was spiritual, it was soulful.

This, even though I wouldn't realize it until much later, was a wonderful preview for where he would go next.

~Austin

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Earth Rot

‘In the beginning… In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…’

And so begins David Axelrod’s third solo album; perhaps one of the most twistedly difficult changes in artistic direction any recording musician has undergone.

Don’t believe me?

Well, perhaps giving an insight into what Song of Innocence may have sounded like had Hardwater taken on their proposed vocal duties, this is the first of David Axelrod’s albums to feature vocals. There are no strings. Instead, the chorus is arranged in a style that mirrors what a string section would have sounded like. Tons of reverbed-out monotone shrill that is mixed in —if you can believe this— even louder than the drums.

And, oh yeah, the album’s called Earth Rot: A Musical Comment on the State of the Environment and the chorus sings about how badly civilization has and is destroying Mother Nature.

For all of its big tunefulness and fantastically jazzy solos (mostly courtesy of Ernie Watts on tenor), it is genuinely shocking to hear for the first time. Even for an artist as unique as Axe, it is the single weirdest thing he ever did. The musical backings are easily the jazziest of his Capitol albums, but even comparisons to those previous two genre-defying records does them absolutely no justice; nor does it give any indication of what they actually sound like. The only thing that gives even a slight clue of what you’re in for is Songs of Experience’s “London”: a manic tune whose three minute existence was solely build up, break down and reconstruct something entirely new as quickly as possible. Then repeat. But even that is just a philosophy of composition and says nothing about the actual tonality of the music.

There is nothing comparable to this music, simply because there is nothing else that sounds like it.

Which might explain why it’s so gosh-danged hard to assess. Perhaps if something had been established in its wake, it would be possible to recognize it as the foundation upon which a style was built. But, no. There is nothing. Just this stunning curiosity of an album that sounds like it came from another galaxy.

The lyrics to this album were wonderfully adapted by David’s son Michael from the Old Testament of the Bible and the ancient Book of Navajo Spirits. They are mostly pretty scolding to contemporary society as they coincide with each side of the record. Side one is called “The Warnings” and side two is called “The Signs,” with each being divided into four parts, though playing seamlessly as one larger piece. It’s nice to listen to the album on CD, as to pinpoint exactly where each part of each larger piece begins, but it should be kept in mind that each side of the album was meant to be digested as a whole. Book ended by two a capella spoken pieces, it can now be seen as one of the very first concept albums to exist.

After the initial spoken intro, "The Warnings Part I” enters and you’ll hear an honest-to-goodness strummed acoustic guitar. A wash of vibes and then probably the most famous four bars of music from this album drops in with a flute accompaniment. As the only fully instrumental piece on the album, it is a showcase for Earl Palmer. The somber block piano chords that Don Randi gently pounds away at throughout the song’s all-too-brief two minutes provide a fitting overture for the blissfully nightmare-ish daydream that follows. The final thirty or so seconds when the vibes hit a subtly high register and Earl Palmer plays a signature swamp beat is one of the album’s most sparsely satisfying moments.

“The Warnings Part II” is again introduced with sparse Don Randi piano chords and a cymbal-heavy Earl Palmer bounce of a beat. And then, BAM, at twenty seconds in, the chorus blasts your ears away with the cry that ‘man’s whole Earth is sick.’ The way this thing goes from restrained and sparsely beautiful to uncomfortably blissed out, and furthermore, how quickly it does so, is astounding. A minute into the tune and things are on the move again, as the theme changes and it repeats and whips itself into a big crescendo, only to be rectified by an appropriately busy Ernie Watts solo. A minute later, the tune is broken into near-silence yet again, as the band drops out and the chorus does the same melodic buildup that occurred previously and as the phrase ‘The foundations of the world are being broken… broken… broken… broken… BROKEN’ grows from a sincere concern to a seeming taunt, the band disappears only to have the chorus inform us, a capella, that Earth is ‘trembling… reeling.’ Whoo. Heavy. As one of the album’s most manic and unpredictably catchy songs, it’s long been a favorite of mine.

As one of the albums prettiest songs, “The Warnings Part III” finds its chorus most closely resembling anything similar to a previous Axelrod string arrangement. There are many wonderful moments where the vocals drop out to reveal a fantastic sparse moment and then come swooping back in with a big blast of melody. But, don’t expect it to sound much like anything previous, because three minutes into the song, Earl Palmer takes a solo and the song goes in a completely different direction based around a bass riff after a fantastic buildup. An a capella ending and then a perfect segue into “The Warnings Part IV.”

With big horn charts that may remind you of an Axe-produced Lou Rawls tune, this song, perhaps more than anything else on the album, becomes the most apparent document of its pretty-ugly/subtle-harsh/quiet-loud dynamics. Things shift, sometimes in a mere few seconds, from shrill atonal blasts to completely subdued comfort. With plenty of time signature changes and arrangement switches to keep it the album’s most diverse piece —perhaps to its own detriment— it packs more into just under three minutes than most songs do in twice the time.

The final phrase, which is repeated to a fadeout, heard at the end of side one is ‘When will you believe my message… message… message… message…?’ At which side two’s opener, “The Signs Part I” finishes the thought immediately after a floating reverbed and stretched out vibes and acoustic guitar intro: ‘…that you are destroying your land?’ About a minute in, atop a spacious horn and vibes arrangement, Don Randi lays down a supreme, bluesy solo on acoustic piano that makes way for the album’s biggest sounding arrangement, a reiteration of the previous vibes and horns riff. It’s slow and epic, threatening to become a harsh dissonance, but falling back in on itself before a wonderful trumpet solo becomes the whipped cream on top. It’s a representative moment for side two of Earth Rot: Where side one showed and proved the unpleasantness that lies deep in these compositions, side two seemingly opens the door and gives the listener a peak into that room, but never allows them to enter. Instead, things are much more restrained here. Consequently, “The Signs” side of the album is decidedly more subdued and melancholy. Maybe a tad bit more listenable, but no less jarring in its exceptional distinctness.

After a big crescendo, "The Signs Part II" is introduced with a famously sampled Don Randi piano intro vamp. And this is where the album turns from melancholy to sometimes just flat out depressing. The choir tells the listener that 'Life is failing... soon there will be nothing that's green... the once plentiful fish are dying... there will be nothing that's clean to drink for those who break the laws of nature...' As the most vocally focused song on the album, the musical backing is little more than accompaniment here and there's really nothing else to do, except marvel at the way Earl Palmer fills the space.

"The Signs Part III" starts off with another one of those gigantic horn vamps that is littered throughout the album. And finally, along with the arrangement's soft sadness, comes the near-acceptance of the planet's demise: 'Is this man who has made the Earth tremble with his great and mighty kingdom?' Top it off with a quote from "Holy Thursday" and another blisteringly brief Ernie Watts solo and you have an absolute killer.

After the horns take a final bow, there's a quick moment of silence before "The Signs Part IV" introduces the album's final act with a soft vibes and acoustic guitar intro which nudges our narrators to confess that 'city life is becoming desperate.' A fantastically dissonant flute and brass vamp sets itself out for observance and it's the last briefly brilliant musical moment on the album that is so short and low-key, you may miss it. It's the last hurrah of many short bursts of true musical magic on an album that is defined by them. The spoken a capella "The Signs" closes out the album on an appropriately weird note that finds the group contrarily repeating the phrase 'It is lovely, it is lovely indeed.'

Released on the first ever Earth Day in 1970 to college bookstores across the nation, Earth Rot's fate was as bleak as the album's message. According to Axe himself, because of the subject of album's narrative, it was marketed specifically to college students. But that otherwise astute marketing plan was met with near-silence at college campuses across the country, as most universities were experiencing student boycotts in response to the infamous student deaths at Kent State University. Because of this unforeseen tragedy, the album sold poorly and, consequently, of all of Axe's Capitol albums, it was the most difficult (and most expensive) to track down until Ascension reissued the album for the first time in 2000. As such, I've never personally seen an original issue of the album and the first time I heard it was when I purchased the Ascension CD reissue in 2000. They really tweaked the artwork around on the CD, taking the now famous back cover painting of the hand in the sky holding the Ajax can over the rotting Earth and making it the front cover. The back artwork was actually the original cover, but Ascension placed the song titles on it:



The official US vinyl reissue from 2001 corrects this and, besides the glossy card stock, recreates the original issue faithfully:


As a cool (however belated) addendum to the album, Capitol issued a 12" single that contained two previously unreleased instrumental versions of "The Signs Part I" and "The Warnings Part III" (mislabeled as "Warning Talk Part Three"). This was released to coincide with Capitol's first domestic reissuing of any of Axe's material, the 2005 compilation set The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1968-1970 (which I'll get to in a future review). The b-side of the 12" featured a newly remixed version (that essentially chunked up the drums) of a Letta Mbulu tune that Axe produced, along with its instrumental. Confusingly, the two instrumental Earth Rot tunes were not on the compilation album, but they did provide an excellent insight into the tunes, sans vocals:


When I first heard the album, I considered it a fully impenetrable piece of weirdness that I would never truly understand. And, even at this point, roughly ten years later, I would say that that is still sort of the case. It was the last of Axe's Capitol albums that I heard —and I heard it nearly a year after I had fully digested and appreciated Innocence and Experience— and it didn't really appeal to me. It mostly just confused me. The fact that it is Axe's shortest album (when you just count the music), yet I still have this much to say about it speaks unwritten volumes about how unique the album truly is. I've warmed up to it over the years, yet it still remains nothing more than a pure curiosity and, more than anything else, a tangent or unfinished thought.

The instrumental versions released on the 2005 12" single were somewhat of a letdown, to be completely honest. For years, I had been of the honest opinion that the album was not as good because of the vocals. But when I quickly tore open the shrink wrap and skipped the first track to get to the "new" songs, it was kind of... well, boring. The epic boombast of Axe's music was always provided by the strings. And, the album being recorded without strings, the music was nowhere near as exciting or interesting.

The vocals, being a longtime line in the sand amongst Axe fans, make this album interesting; they make the album what it is. They're kind of like those goofy Tom Scott and Gabor Szabo albums on Impulse that are co-billed to 'The California Dreamers' (except with a bit more of a masculine baritone presence) which were recorded around the same time (perhaps explaining why Carol Kaye is absent?). They're sang in that dated late-60's choral rock/pop style, but without any emotion whatsoever, explaining the cold, spacey quality that, in turn, perhaps explains why the record is so intimidating.

In my initial review of the album, I, articulately and somewhat profoundly (considering my then-rudimentary writing), had this to say: "The music has changed ever so slightly to revolve around a more sparse and ambiently melodic theme. It's not quite as focused on creating a theme and building on it, as it is on short passages of differing melodic walls." Fuck me, I still agree a million percent. That is the most accurate description I can still come up with. And it's representative that it's the best description I could come up with, yet it's still completely vague and generally says nothing all that specific about the actual music.

Again, perhaps if there were something else like it, it'd be easier to assess.

~Austin

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Songs of Experience

As the follow-up to a complete and total masterpiece, David Axelrod’s second album followed the first album quickly and with similar themes. Both were inspired by the works of William Blake, both are completely instrumental affairs that showcase a collision of modern classical orchestrations underneath contemporary backbeats inspired by rhythm and blues and rock and roll, which allowed for jazz improvisations to lay atop, all weaving an unprecedented sonic tapestry. Because of that, many people like to consider the albums as two smaller halves of the greater whole.

But I must stop the comparisons.

Sure, it’s easy to see why the albums are compared, but besides the William Blake themes and the approach to the compositions, the two albums are distinct from one another within the very first tracks. Where Song of Innocence started off with the psychedelic confusion of 'Urizen', Songs of Experience introduces itself with the triumphant bounce of 'The Poison Tree.' The first half of the song is a strings and vibes heaven of prettiness until just over a minute in and the entire thing explodes into a fiddle feature. After that short interlude, the song morphs into a slower, more reflective theme that is quite representative of the rest of the album.

Where Song of Innocence was either all out trippy dissonance or sudden, exploding jubilation, Songs of Experience is a much more restrained, introspective labyrinth of sounds that is decidedly more elegantly European in its approach and ultimately, despite countless gorgeous moments, a much darker affair.

To follow the dual-faced opener, the slowly paced and slowly unfolding 'A Little Girl Lost' is one of my favorite songs on the album. Its soft vibraphone and harpsichord iterations that morph into a full string reiteration of the melancholy theme is ear candy of the purest and sweetest type.

Up next is one of Axe’s oft-compiled breakbeat-heavy gems, 'London.' Don Randi and Earl Palmer, with numerous heavy open drum and organ breaks, steal the show. The song itself is pure excitement, never once repeating itself or stopping to take in the scenery. Many tuneful blasts and big crescendos into the tune and it ends in a completely different place than it starts. This song lays the thematic foundation from which Axe would build his next album.

I always used to look forward to being able to flip the record, as my back-to-back favorite songs kick off side two of the album, but I was never in a hurry to get there, because 'The Sick Rose' is one of the album’s highlights as well. Imagine my delight, hearing Songs of Experience on CD for the first time and having this incredibly coherent and strong three song centerpiece smack dab in the middle of the album. Talk about brilliant consistency and having a grasp on album sequencing. More than anything else on this album, 'The Sick Rose,' 'The School Boy' and 'The Human Abstract' form the core of the argument for Experience being the superior work of Axe’s Capitol output.

And looking at how 'The Sick Rose' develops from a sparse, eerie, brass-laced slow burn into a lazy, vibe-heavy, near hallucinatory flow of a song, it makes sense that it sets the table for such a calm and transcendent group of quietly revelatory songs. When 'The Sick Rose' finally fades out amidst a relaxing swirl of strings and an outstanding trumpet solo, it will hardly prepare you for the emotional heights forthcoming.

A turn of the record and you will hear nearly a minute of nothing but a twelve string and an acoustic guitar trading phrases over the top of subtle piano harmony. Of anything here, 'The School Boy' sounds most like it could have been a holdover from Song of Innocence. It plays the same role that 'A Dream' fulfilled on that album, as it is pure sparsely lush meditative consonance that calmly sets the table for the album’s highlight.

'The Human Abstract' is so good, trying to assess it through critical analysis feels utterly pointless. It is all restrained emotion and perfectly captured ambience. Whether it’s Don Randi’s sympathetic piano line, Earl Palmer’s steady but kinetic drumming, Carol Kaye’s enigmatic and challenging electric bass or the simply epic guitar solo, the entire thing is wonderfully and flawlessly played. It is David Axelrod’s finest achievement as a composer and an artist and the best song I’ve ever heard.

If 'The Human Abstract' is a passionately longing piece of romanticism, its successor on the album is a darkly scheming piece of conceptualism. 'The Fly,' while being arguably the album’s catchiest piece, is a bleak strings and harpsichord feature. It feels nearly like a sinister cynic as the follower to 'The Human Abstract.' Twisted and dramatic.

If this album, overall, is darkly romantic, then its closing song is just plain dark and, at times, downright frightening. 'A Divine Image,' full of atonal horn blasts and spooky keyboards, is just about as intimidating as its title's incidence implies. Although it takes him nearly a minute to appear, Earl Palmer dominates the track with a constantly shuffling and evolving 4/4 backbeat that opens up to great sample fame on more than a few occasions. The song seems to represent the dark side of psychedelia and is a magnificent closing tune. It's never been a favorite song of mine, but its placing at the end of the album's sequence is impeccable, and perfectly complimentary.

Although I am no longer in possession of an original vinyl issue of the album, the official vinyl reissue from the early 2000s is, except for the glossy card stock, faithful to the original 1969 gatefold issue on Capitol. I don't think you can read it in these grainy photos (sorry, taking photos at night with little knowledge of digital camera ins and outs), but the album is billed as 'an anthology of awareness after birth' on the inner cover. Hip. Love that Capitol green and purple label as well:


When the album was issued for the first time on CD, again by the Australian label Ascension, they changed the layout of the back of the album artwork, perhaps to be able to list the songs. Consequently, the famous collage of 'David wrapped in paper' photos does not appear anywhere on this issue:


This isn't like their issue of Song of Innocence on CD, where they basically kept the back cover artwork layout the same as the LP:


Perhaps it would be easiest to liken David Axelrod's first two albums to the years in which they were released: 1968 America was still awash in hippie idealism and good vibes leftover from the summer of love, while by 1969, the hangover and the aftermath began to set in. Reality kicked in and, with it, a lot of the idealism took a hike. As if the two were unable to occupy the same space at the same time.

Songs of Experience would be considered David Axelrod's 'weird difficult' album had he not made its follow up. But since he did, it can now be assessed as a transitional album, catching the artist between two distinct and provocative milestones. As such, Experience has a lot to offer fans of both Song of Innocence and Earth Rot, and on most days if you asked an Axelrod fan their favorite album, they'd probably say this one. However, it is too dark, too cynical for its own good. Like the William Blake works that inspired it, it is bittersweet and brutally honest, perhaps to a fault. While not the complete, fully realized apex that Innocence was, it stretches to the limits of David Axelrod exploring his symphonic, neo-classical jazz rock fusion.

When I first heard this album, I didn't like it. I dug 'The School Boy' and 'The Human Abstract,' but the rest of the album's overwhelmingly downtrodden and sluggish mood was not really my cup of tea. 'London' was too impenetrable for me and the rest of the album was either too slow or too sad for my liking. Time has been kinder to the album than my initial thoughts, but ultimately, I do feel like it is kind of a scattered mess. Of course it's top notch material from my favorite musician at arguably his peak, but Innocence had set the bar impossibly high for a follow-up to be able to top it.

Is it a good album? Yes, undoubtedly, without hesitation, it is another stone cold classic from Axe's glory years. Then why the extra criticism? Well, because it is a transitional album and there are little seeds all over the record, looking backwards and previewing what was to come; yet none of these are as good of what they are referencing. These songs seem to imply a hefty and deep unsureness, but are all played pristine, with even the atonal moments feeling completely and exactly calculated. Maybe it was Axe's heavier reliance on vibes to set the mood, maybe it was guitarist Pete Wyant's uncanny sense of dissonance that was missing; who knows. But these songs, at times, feel purposely incomplete.

If he had made another album in this idiom, it would have inevitably failed. Because when something is taken to the extreme it is taken on this album, there is nowhere else to go except backwards.

To truly go forward and make something entirely unique, even from this album, he would abandon just about every distinguishable characteristic that he had established about himself.

~Austin

Friday, May 1, 2009

Song(s) of Innocence

Released in 1968 at the insistence of his colleagues, David Axelrod's first solo album, in retrospect, seems to have been bubbling under, not as a possibility, but as something that would just inevitably happen. Listening to the man talk about the album's inception over thirty years later and you may come to the conclusion that he was unwillingly forced into its creation. But the contents of the album tell a completely different story. Indeed, the music on this album explodes and vibrates with intensity and passion. Upon hearing the album, the listener must assume that its creator labored over it ceaselessly for extended periods of time and squeezed every last emotion he had ever felt into its brief twenty seven minutes.

Not so.

In fact, Axe has famously remarked in recent years that he composed the bulk of the scores and arrangements for this album, for better or for worse (in his opinion), in just about two weeks. Sitting in his work room, surrounded by William Blake's illustrations and reading the Blake poems that made up the greater work Songs of Innocence over and over again, Axe focused hard and made up his own soundtracks for Blake's words.

Originally, it was meant to have harmony vocals in place of where all the strings are now heard. These vocals were to be done by the rock band Hardwater, whose album Axe had produced earlier in the year at Capitol. The band was to recite the poems that inspired the compositions, but, for whatever reason, at the last moment, the album was decided to instead be an instrumental affair. The only holdover from Hardwater was the group's dissonance-obsessed guitar prodigy, Peter Wyant — a fantastic foil to the album's other guitarist, competent but staunchly traditionalist Howard Roberts.

Compiling his favorite musicians —and the cream of the Los Angeles session circuit crop— the album sounds like exactly what it is: a head-on collision of the traditionalist, perfectionist slant from which it was born and the all-out, no-holds-barred attitude of a blossoming genius left to his whims and his whims alone.

There was no set precedent for the music on this album. A singular work of classical dynamics, cozying up to rock and roll rhythms and jazz improvisation, all filtered through the bigger-than-life scope of late-60's American idealism. To say that this music is potentially life-changing is probably true, but to assume that that achievement was among its creator's concerns is probably inaccurate. There is a certain ease to this music. The huge symphonic blasts mixing up with impressionistic, longing melodies may border on over the top for some, but there is never a moment when it doesn't sound completely and fully genuine.

When David Axelrod wrote this music, he meant every single note of it.

From the album's opening 'Urizen,' you know something is up. A very dissonantly modern string section is the first thing you hear, in ascending register. It just goes up and up until reaching the point of shrill, when the tension breaks into what is probably the most traditionally 'rock and roll' sounding rhythm on any Axe record. Pete Wyant wails away, finding these incredible harmony lines that seem to only exist when he plays them, and the song doesn't make any tangible sense until over two minutes in when the famously sampled drum (Earl Palmer) and electric bass (Carol Kaye) breakdown comes in and the song defines itself in clear terms. For years I, frankly, didn't like the song. It was too dissonant and not defined clearly enough. But, to me, that is a defining aspect of the song's enduring modern slant. It is dense and melodically complicated. The only consonant aspects of it lie in the progressions — the current chord not making complete sense until the next one is played. What a start.

From there, the album moves into the signature Axe tune: 'Holy Thursday.' A buoyant and ebullient tune, it isn't my favorite Axe song, not now or ever, but it is certainly one of his strongest. Allmusic.com claims it's based on a riff from a Count Basie tune, but I'm not so sure about that, as it must be a Basie tune I'm unfamiliar with. In any case, it's gorgeous. Gentle and restrained one moment and big and boombastic the next. 'Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy?' wrote William Blake in his original poem. And that reflects in the tune because it is rather jubilant until the last portion, when the key changes, along with the entire song's emotion. A perfect reflection of Blake's original work; a bittersweet celebration of life itself. And one of Axe's most recognized breaks opens the tune as well.

'The Smile' is next and it is a perfectly complimentary piece to Blake's poem as well. A duality nature lies in the tune's minor-to-major changes and repetitive mood, just as Blake says smiles convey in real life. For a long time, the tune was my favorite piece on the album, because of the glorious ending. The vampy repetition builds and repeats faster and faster until it finally explodes into a new theme entirely, all within the final minute. Equal parts beauty and deceit, the song then implodes on itself for a brief, but foreshadowing, exit with a quiet, melancholy solo piano fadeout.

Only to be followed by 'A Dream' and the album's title track; arguably the two prettiest pieces Axe ever did. Neither one has a moment of dissonance or ill will. 'A Dream' is a short meditative tone poem, with a pretty little harpsichord line, perhaps upping the album's psychedelics factor a bit. The lush (even for this album) string accompaniment falls in and, despite being the album's shortest piece, it is arguably its most satisfying.

Following a flip of the vinyl, the title track is just absolute magnificence. It is one of the single most fully realized and beautiful pieces of music ever recorded. It never loses its intrigue, its magic or its wonderfullness. It is absolutely blissed out sonic perfection. Point blank, hands down, end of discussion.

'Merlin's Prophecy', with its cymbal heavy 4/4 swing time signature, is the jazziest thing to be found here. Although it becomes something entirely different with the addition of a heavy Hammond B-3 treament. I've long considered it kind of like intermission after the fantastically towering highlight that precedes it and the heavy epilogue that follows it, combined with the deceptively simple riff that dominates it.

Only Axe would close such a gorgeous and profound album with something that starts off as ugly as 'The Mental Traveler' does. It is probably one of the heaviest things he's done, what with the two and half minute Pete Wyant showcase that opens the tune. Probably Wyant's finest recorded moment, he belts out a solo that simply reiterates the tune's head, but, always the fan of dissonance, hits these completely out of place notes that signal to the listener that this tune, indeed, is not what it seems. For the briefest of moments, smack dab in the middle, there is nothing but silence and then Carol Kaye comes back to set the table for Earl Palmer to unleash one of the most underrated Axelrod breakbeats. After marinating in some dizzying chords, Kaye falls back into the groove just in time for the strings and horns to introduce an entirely new theme that is altogether more compelling and just downright sad. The bands lays out and the strings once again ascend into the shrillest of high registers and, just as it began, the whole thing is over. Twisted that, he began and ended with arguably the loudest and most dissonant songs he ever did.

For fun, here are the differing issues of the album....

The original 1968 issue on Capitol. Notice how it's billed as 'Song' of Innocence on both cover and label; and also how Axe's middle initial is credited as part of his name on the label, but not the cover. Gotta love that classic Capitol rainbow label:


Strangely, the album was reissued by Capitol in 1972. The cover and label are different, but the music is the same. I guess the album was doing well when it was first issued in 1968, but the promotions department was told to lay off, because Capitol wanted Axe to be a producer and A&R man as his priority, not a recording artist. Maybe when he finally left the label in 1972, they reissued it as a sort of 'goodbye and thank you' for all the money he made the label over the years. Also, notice how, on this cover the album is billed as 'Songs' of Innocence, back to the singular 'Song' of Innocence on the label. Again, his middle initial is included on the label (classic Capitol orange and black by this point), but not the cover. Also, the photos were then recent. Axe had aged quite a bit in the four years since the album's initial release:


First non-Capitol reissue on the Australian label Ascension, from 2000. They removed the Capitol logos from the original cover and changed the record label entirely:


The original Ascension issue on CD, first ever issue of the album digitally, also from 2000:


I haven't purchased EMI UK's vinyl and CD reissues of the album from 2001, but I've heard that, besides the cover art being exact replications of the original Capitol issues, the mastering is exactly the same as the Ascension versions (which is excellent).

Years have been kind to the album. At the time, it was labeled 'jazz fusion' a year before Miles got there. It received a lot of attention from mind expansion seeking twenty-somethings and gained clout in the 80's from psych collectors. In the 90's, it was sampled by hip hop heads looking for pristine drums and deep emotions. When it was finally reissued for the first time in 2000, it sold more copies then any previous issue ever had. Today, the production may date it, but the actual content still sounds on the cusp of something yet to be discovered.

It is my single favorite album of all time.

After over ten years of it being a part of my life, I've yet to hear anything that surpasses it, not to mention, equals it.

An absolute monument in modern music.

~Austin